When the Princeton (14–9 overall, 6–2 Ivy) and Cornell (9–11, 3–6) women’s basketball teams met on Feb. 2, Princeton breezed past the Big Red to earn a commanding 75–46 win.
Friday night at home, the rivals faced off again. This time, victory did not come so easily. The Tigers barely withstood a fourth-quarter comeback from Cornell, and the final 68–64 score was decided in the last seconds of the game.
Princeton knew heading into the matchup that to steamroll the Big Red again would be unlikely. Last time the teams faced each other, the Tigers were just emerging from a month-long break from competition. Their recent schedule has been far less forgiving — last night’s game marked their first of five in an eight-day span.
Banghart’s prediction proved true from the start. The first period saw four lead changes, two tied scores, and a dominant performance by neither team. The highlight of the quarter came at the very end; Princeton trailed Cornell 14–11 with just under two minutes left on the clock.
Sophomore guard Carlie Littlefield put up a field goal, then assisted senior Sydney Jordan with her own. Cornell fouled senior guard Gabrielle Rush on a breakaway, and she made both her shots. Junior standout Bella Alarie contributed two points of her own to round up the Tigers’ eight-point run — and boost Princeton to a 19–16 lead heading into the second.
But despite that burst of excitement, Banghart was unimpressed with her team’s initial performance.
“Because we didn’t dive into the game, we were careless with the ball,” she said. That criticism extended even to Alarie, one of the most reliable forces of Princeton’s offense.
“From the outset,” said Banghart, “Bella wasn’t as dominant in terms of her positioning, in terms of her stance, and in terms of a presence — so she didn’t get as many touches, and we weren’t as focused at getting it to her.”
But when Princeton stepped back onto the court, it stepped up its game. As she had from the beginning of the game, Rush led the team’s scoring efforts. But also notable were the performances of some less familiar faces — like first-year Lexi Weger. Weger scored eight points in her six minutes of playing time. The feat brought her even with Alarie in terms of total game points.
A buzzer-beating trey from senior guard Qalea Ismail propelled Princeton to a 44–27 lead at the end of the second; by the end of the third, the Tigers had stretched the score to a 58–39 advantage.
An easy victory seemed in sight, but Cornell refused to accept defeat.
Big Red’s Laura Bagwell-Katalinich opened the fourth quarter with an eight-point run. Princeton’s first-year forward Kira Emsbo responded with six points of her own. The score stood at 66–51; the clock wound down, and Cornell upped the pressure.
In the last six minutes of the game, the Big Red intercepted Princeton’s passes, snagged their rebounds, and scored basket after basket. And with 34 seconds left in the game, a field goal from Cornell’s junior forward Samantha Widmann slashed Princeton’s margin to two.
It seemed the perfect comeback, and one for which Princeton had no answer.
But with 11 seconds on the clock, the ball did what it had been unable to do all night: it found Bella Alarie. And Alarie did what she had been unable to do all night: dominate. A shot from under the basket gave Princeton a four-point lead. The game was over. The Tigers had squeaked by, but they had pulled it off.
But to Banghart, squeaking by was not enough.
“The effort was really disappointing,” she said. “ We’re playing for a championship. That’s exciting. We’re playing for postseason. It’s the first time all year that all 13 players have been in uniform. There’s a lot to play for. And I thought our effort wasn’t sustained. We didn’t have championship command. We didn’t hunt the way I want us to. It wasn’t our best outing.”
As for addressing Friday night’s flaws, Banghart has a clear plan of attack: “Bella needs to be dominant. Rush needs to make shots. Carlie needs to push the pace. Our pieces need to contribute.”
Banghart’s players will have soon have a chance to take her advice; women’s basketball faces Columbia (7–15, 3–6) in Jadwin Gym at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.